Living eighty years, she was the wife of the King of France when she was thirteen, then at twenty-eight wife of the King of England, and mother of three English kings. Includes three genealogical tables. Great for family research!
She oversaw a powerful and wealthy duchy and the prosperous county of Poitou. “She fought for the freedom to make her own choices in life” (Turner 3).
However, it was only when she was a widow after her husband Henry II of England died that she could be liberated from “castle arrest” and gain political power.
According to Richardson’s five-volume monumental Royal Ancestry, we descend from her through her son King John and one of his mistresses.
WARREN’S GENEALOGICAL TABLE
Kings of France
Rock crystal vase, gift from her grandfather, William IX, which she gave to her first husband Louis VII, King of France. He gave it away after their divorce. Insulting!
As to her date of birth, modern historian Ralph V. Turner in his biography of her says no one can be sure of her year of birth, let alone her day and month. He places the year in 1124.
Now let’s begin.
- Eleanor’s lineage comes from the Carolingians (i.e. Charlemagne), but the royal Capetians who were based in Paris to the north claimed a direct link, while the dukes of Aquitaine could only claim collateral descent. But that didn’t stop her ducal ancestors from seeing themselves equal to the northern kings, who were perhaps the first among equals.
- Her grandfather, Duke William IX, was known as the Troubadour Duke who composed verses; half of his surviving poems are ribald. He lived a carefree, secular life, pursuing sexual pleasure. He was even anti-clerical at times. He flouted the church’s moral teaching.
- Courtly love flourished in the ducal court of Poitiers, penetrating chivalry, which is the traditional values of the warrior class, such as knights. This love celebrated the dalliances between a married noble lady and a knightly lover or admirer.
- Eleanor grew up in this environment, while ladies attached to the Kings of France in the north and the Kings of England in the north were compelled to submit to male dominance.
- Women of the South of France were gaining power, while women of the North were losing it or never had it. This difference resulted in a north-south prejudice.
- The women of the South were not as submissive to church moral teaching, as were the northern women.
- Also, the south spoke langue d’oc (now called Occitan) which extended as far north as Limousin, about 100 kilometers from Poitiers, while the north spoke langue d’oïl; the two languages were virtually incomprehensible, intensifying the regional factionalism.
- Eleanor probably spoke both because she grew up in Poitiers.
- The whole region in the southwest of France was prosperous because of trade and bountiful agriculture.
- Her father, William X, also quarreled with the church. Bernard of Clairvauz (d. 1153) traveled to Poitiers twice and confronted him with holy and emotional anger. The duke submitted and vowed to do penance by making a pilgrimage to the shrine of Santiago de Compostella in northwest Spain. The relics of St. James the Apostle were discovered there.
- Eleanor’s mother was Aénor; and Eleanor’s name is rendered in French Aliénor, which is tweaked Latin for “Another Aénor.” So in that way she was named for her mother.
- Eleanor’s mother had three children before dying young: Eleanor was six when her mother died; Aélith (a.k.a. Petronilla) (d. 1152); and a brother Aigret, who died in the same year as his mother (c. 1130).
- Specialist scholars generally agree that Eleanor was born in 1124.
- She was solidly educated, probably learning Latin. Troubadour poetry authored by female troubadours, called Trobairitz, shows that aristocratic women learned the poetry of courtly love and manners.
- Eleanor probably attended daily Mass in the palace chapel or a nearby church.
- Her father died at the young age of thirty-eight on Good Friday, April 9, 1137, short of reaching his goal of the shrine of St. James at Compostella. He was buried at the Cathedral of Galicia, at the high altar.
- Eleanor and Aélith were the only heirs, since their brother had died. The duke’s duchy in Aquitaine was insecure.
- But sister Aélith was not to receive any part of the inheritance. Would she find an upper-level aristocratic husband when she had no wealthy dowry to bring to a match?
- The character of her grandfather, the Troubadour Duke, left her unprepared for the austerity of the northern court in Paris. She was a carefree and robust and even argumentative southerner.
- Her father, before his departure on his pilgrimage, left her in the care of Louis VI, King of France. William X could not choose one of the lords of nearby counties. Too rapacious and unfriendly.
- Louis VI was now charged with finding a match for her. He chose his son, the already crowned King Louis the Younger. After all, she brought with her a considerable estate, the greatest duchy in Christendom, certainly in France.
- Her girlhood ended when she married Louis at thirteen on July 25, 1137 in the Cathedral of Bordeaux. He was only a couple of years older. Louis went south for the wedding with five hundred powerful knights, the best in his realm, as a show of strength to his future unruly subjects.
- Louis VI died less than a month after the wedding, which he didn’t attend due to ill health. Louis the Younger became Louis VII and Eleanor Queen of France.
- Since Eleanor and Louis VII were close in age, So she engendered rivalry at the new court, as she sought to make herself the king’s chief adviser. She tried to maintain control over her prosperous duchy of Aquitaine, though the marriage meant that the king could control it.
- She also competed with her mother-in-law, Adelaide of Maurienne.
- Louis allowed her influence. At the time and for years into the marriage people observed he loved Eleanor as an anxious, lovesick child.
- In 1145, their first daughter Marie was born, named after the Virgin Mary.
- The marriage will eventually fail probably because she failed to give him a male heir, so important in France. But there’s another reason for the annulment / divorce.
- Eleanor’s sister, Petronilla, was so taken with Parisian courtly life that she eloped with a married man, Louis’s brother, who was married to the Count of Champagne’s sister.
- The Count protested, but Eleanor talked the lovesick, inexperienced king into supporting the couple. It came to war, and the King’s mercenaries got out of hand and torched the cathedral at Vitry, where several hundred women and children were sheltering. They perished.
- This led Louis to take the more religious path, and prompted him to go on the Second Crusade to the Holy Land, as penance.
- The trip overland was difficult and treacherous. She probably rode in a covered litter between two horses. Or she rode on a horse.
- Arriving in Constantinople, she saw a free city, culturally and morally speaking. This surely prompted her memories of her looser upbringing in contrast to austere Paris.
- The caravan was attacked by Muslims in Anatolia. She saw Louis’s deficient leadership on the Crusade.
- Louis refused to help Raymond to conquer Edessa before he went down to Jerusalem to pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
- Another reason for the divorce: The Black Legend or the Antioch affair. Eleanor was accused, of a misconduct with her paternal uncle, Raymond, only nine years older, while she and Louis VII were on the Second Crusade to the Holy Land. A free-spirited woman, she probably did break down some rules of propriety, by Capetian standards.
- No matter that the Black Legend was exaggerated or fabricated. She was a hot-blooded southerner, so rumors circulated until many believed she had committed adultery with her uncle.
- After Louis and Eleanor departed, Raymond died in a suicide battle with the Muslims, who are reported to have cut off his head and right arm.
- On the way back home from the Holy Land, Eleanor and Louis voyaged back on separate ships. A storm … a naval battle with Greeks .. and Eleanor was temporarily captured, but soon released. But the experience was harrowing for her. She braved it, though.
- On their stay with the pope, Eleanor got pregnant and nine months later in 1150 bore the king a daughter, Adelicia or Aélith, after her sister, or in English Alice. So a temporary reconciliation took place. But it was short-lived.
- His loss during the Crusades greatly lowered his prestige back home at Paris, but not so much with the church leaders who liked his piety.
- Eleanor had had enough. She informed him that she would initiate annulment, on the grounds of consanguinity or too closely related. Her great-great-great grandfather was Robert the Pious, King of France (r. 996-1031), and he was Louis’s great-great grandfather. Canon (or church) law said no before the seventh degree. Consanguinity was really just an excuse for annulment when an aristocratic couple was incompatible or childless or especially sonless.
- Eleanor and Henry, duke of Normandy, son of the Count of Anjou, met in summer 1151; the Count and King Louis had to settle a border dispute. He was nine years his junior, but he was robust and dashing, more than her monkish and meek husband.
- Historian Ralph V. Turner writes: “It is not impossible that Eleanor had gone so far as to try to provoking Louis’s jealousy by flirting with Henry. Perhaps she hoped by such means to incite her husband to divorce her. In such private conversations as those that had inspired the king’s suspicions at Antioch, it is not improbable that she and Henry gave hints to one another of a future together” (104).
- Turner also speculates: “Perhaps Eleanor had heard the legend of the Angevin line’s descent from a demon-wife of an early count who always slipped out of church before the elevation of the host, and when forced to remain during the sacred moment, mysteriously vanished into thin air” (103).
- Louis warmed to the idea of annulment because of the Black Legend; because he had come to believe God frowned on his marriage since he had no male heir (much as Henry VIII of England believed, 400 years later).
- Also, Medieval medical faculties, following Greek science, taught that women got pregnant if they experienced sexual pleasure. If Eleanor no longer loved him, how could she have a son or even a child?
- During the meeting with bishops and other church leaders for the divorce proceedings, it is possible that Louis wanted to include stories about Eleanor’s flirtations—and adultery—to warn other would-be husbands off of her. The archbishop of Bordeaux, her ally, intervened.
- Annulment was granted, but Louis’s and Eleanor’s two daughters remained legitimate because their parents had married in good faith.
- Eleanor didn’t like Louis’s monkish habits, so she was glad to be rid of him. She is reported to have said that she had “married a monk, not a king.”
- She escaped back to Poitou. But in those days she needed male protection because an aristocrat looking for land might kidnap her.
- She had two narrow escapes: first from the count of Blois and Chartres, Theobald V (later to become Eleanor’s daughter’s husband), who tried to take her as she traveled past Blois; and second she had to avoid abduction by Geoffrey Plantagenet, Henry’s sixteen-year-old younger brother. But Eleanor was “warned by her angel” at Tours, so she took a different route.
- She wrote to Henry that she was available for marriage. The message arrived on April 6, 1152. He was at Lisieux in Normandy, preparing to sail off on another expedition to take the English throne. He hurried to her, instead.
- Eight weeks after her divorce, on May 18, 1152, at the Cathedral of Poitiers, Henry married Eleanor of Aquitaine, in a quiet ceremony, swift and discreet. It was a love match, though modern historian Turner doubts it was a love match.
- This was a political disaster for Louis VII, since Henry now controlled Aquitaine. In the near future he would prove to be a great monarch over a vast territory that stretched from Scotland to the Pyrenees in southern France. Eleanor became regent of England during her husband’s absence and when she was no in her duchy, Aquitaine.
- Domestic life: while Henry went off to claim the English throne, he left Eleanor with his mother, Matilda, widow of Emperor Henry V. He was close to his mother. He called himself Henry fitzEmpress (Henry, son of Empress). Daughter-in-law and mother-in-law were very much alike—both independent and political. Did they get along? Probably not.
- People were tired of fighting for the English crown, and Stephen’s firstborn son Eustace died unexpectedly in summer 1153. On November 6, 1153, Henry was made Stephen’s adoptive son and lawful heir; Stephen’s surviving son, William, received a generous settlement.
- In August 1153, fifteen months after their marriage, she birthed a boy while Henry was away. During his absence, she had the right to name him, and she chose William, after her long line of dukes of Aquitaine.
- Henry was crowned king in Westminster Abbey on December 19, 1154, while Queen Eleanor was heavily pregnant with their second child. He was twenty-one years young, while she was thirty.
- She was now the queen-duchess.
- Let’s not overlook the fact that Eleanor had a spiritual, devotional side: In her charter to Fontevraud, which expresses her independence, she writes as a pious and spiritual woman: “A countess of the Poitevins by the grace of God.” And “after separating from my lord Louis, the very illustrious king of the Franks, because we were related, and having been united in marriage to my lord Henry, they were the noble consul of the Angevins.”
- Then the charter takes a personal turn, revealing her spiritual, devotional side: “Impelled by divine inspiration, I wished to visit the assembly of holy virgins in Fontevraud, and what was in my mind I have been able to accomplish with the help of God’s grace. Therefore guided by God, I have come to Fontevraud and crossed the threshold of these virgins’ chapter house” (Turner 114)
- Her firstborn son died in 1156 and was entombed at the feet of his great-grandfather, King Henry I, in Reading.
- On February 28, 1155, Eleanor had their second son, while Henry was in Northampton. He was named Henry, after Henry I, the model ruler of Henry II. He would become “co-king.”
- For much of 1156 Henry and Eleanor were away from each other, but not before she gave birth to a second child in June, their daughter named Matilda, named after Henry’s mother, a named that linked her to her Anglo-Norman ancestors.
- Henry was on a visit to his continental lands in France, and in autumn she joined him with their children, and they toured her duchy. They celebrated Christmas in Bordeaux, and she returned in early 1157, pregnant once more.
- On September 8, 1157, she gave birth to Richard, future king, while she was at Oxford.
- In September 23, 1158, she birthed Geoffrey. His named honored his grandfather Count Geoffrey of Anjou.
- The birth of all Eleanor’s sons must have irked or enraged Louis VII. But in 1165, Louis had his first son, Philip, with his third wife. The future King Philip II was promised to Eleanor’s daughter, ignoring the consanguinity problem. But this was the grounds for challenging the betrothal later. Eleanor must have appreciated the irony.
- In mid-August 1158 Henry left for a long absence of four years, until January 1163. She crossed over to join him for Christmas at Cherbourg, after which she returned to England.
- Eleanor may have encouraged her husband to attack Toulouse, when its over-mighty counts denied her the city’s rights. She believed it belonged to her ancestors.
- But Henry called off the attack and settled matters with the count of Toulouse and Louis VII who had joined the count to repel Henry. No doubt Louis VII appreciated the irony.
- In September 1160 Eleanor crossed the Channel for Normandy, taking her two oldest children Young Henry and Matilda. He was to do homage to Louis VII, a perfunctory act, so Henry could take the duchy, and Louis could give away his daughter Margaret to him (never mind the consanguinity problem). But he insisted that his daughter remain in Normandy away from Eleanor and England.
- Young Eleanor was born in 1161 or 1162. She will marry King Alphonse VIII of Castile.
- In May 1165, Eleanor sailed to the Continent to join Henry and remained there for a year to serve as regent in Anjou and Maine; shortly after her arrival, he went back to England to subdue the Welsh (if he could).
- In October 1165, after three years of no pregnancy, she gave birth to Joanne or Joan, born at Angers, France (if the chronology is right, she must have been born prematurely, but lived).
- In 1166 Henry returned to Brittany to assert his rule over it, for the nobles of Maine and Brittany refused to submit to Eleanor. Henry defeated them and compelled the count of Brittany, Conan, to affiance his daughter Constance to Geoffrey. Constance brought the earldom of Richmond, as part of her inheritance.
- Sometime around Christmas Day, in 1166, she gave birth to John, her youngest son and last child, the future king. He was so named because he was born about the time of the feast of St. John the Evangelist, December 27.
- Eleanor spent several months at Winchester preparing for her (young) daughter’s marriage to Henry the Lion, the Duke of Saxony, the greatest family in Germany, after the Imperial family.
- In September the girl’s paternal grandmother died, Matilda (Henry II’s mother), who lived a semi-monastic life in Normandy. It is not known whether Eleanor crossed the Channel to attend the burial service. Henry II went up to pay his respects.
- Perhaps Eleanor didn’t attend the funeral because she had misgivings about sending her daughter Matilda to marry the Duke of Saxony. He was a widower and mature man, while she was eleven.
- From 1155-1168 Eleanor became the regent in England for the absentee king. This was not merely formal or empty. She promoted literature and a thriving court of entertainers. This is her carefree upbringing down south on the Continent. Henry II patronized literature as well.
- Andrew the Chaplain’s On Love collects twenty-one opinions supposedly passed by Eleanor about affairs of the heart and love.
- Back to politics. The problem for Henry: Eleanor was born in western-southern France and ruled by laws of heredity, while Henry took over her territories by marriage. Would the powerful counts and dukes welcome his authority? When they didn’t and revolted, he brought in an army. Resentment grew. They didn’t like his encroachment on their “traditional liberties.”
- Eventually Henry installed Eleanor as regent over Poitiers, France, in early 1168. Her child-bearing years were over.
- Young Henry was crowned regent in June 1170 and could replace his mother as regent over England, but realistically the Justiciar was taking over as second-in-command, so Eleanor was losing her power in England, whether by her son or the Justiciar.
- As time wore on, Henry II spent a lot of time away from his growing sons. Did this absence contribute to the rebellions?
- Henry II’s son Henry rebelled against his father, for the eighteen-year-old had prestige, even anointed again as king by the bishop of Rouen, but hardly anything else.
- Fifteen-year-old Richard and fourteen-year-old Geoffrey joined in another rebellion, led by their mother Eleanor of Aquitaine. Why did she rebel? Her authority over her duchy was being undermined by the king. She needed the territory, however, for her favorite son, Richard. Young Henry would take over from his father, while the law back then allowed the second son to take over from his mother.
- And some say Eleanor was jealous of his mistress Rosamund Clifford, daughter of a Welsh lord, but specialist historians are doubtful of this because of misaligned chronology. Also, Henry had lots of affairs, so maybe it wasn’t a broken heart but bruised pride that contributed to Eleanor’s rebellion.
- Another explanation for her rebellion: She seemed to be sidelined in the king’s court; she wielded no substantial power, even though she was a duchess and queen in her own right and former queen of France. Henry II had a domineering personality, and so did she, but he eclipsed her. She would express her need for power through her sons.
- In August 1172 King Louis VII of France insisted on young Henry’s second coronation in Winchester Cathedral, with his wife Marguerite. It happened, but he was not anointed by Becket, for he was dead.
- Civil war began in summer 1173, called the Great Revolt.
- The three rebellious sons took refuge in the French king’s arms, while Eleanor at the end of February left the duchy of Aquitaine to join her sons, fleeing to her ex-husband Louis VII. The irony!
- At nearly fifty she set out on horseback cross-country. She was in mortal danger. She dressed in male clothes, though modern historian Ralph Turner says maybe this is a metaphor for her ferocious male attitude. Then Turner acknowledges that she may have put on trousers so she could ride astride, not sidesaddle.
- In any case, she was recognized and put in prison at Chinon Castle.
- Many believed that God rained down rebellion on his household because of Becket’s death, so in July 1174 Henry II stood dressed as a pilgrim before Canterbury church, groaning and crying and signing. He prostrated himself before Becket’s tomb and prayed a long time. He swore he did not intend the archbishop’s death, but acknowledged his rash words caused it.
- Henry II’s show of penance scored a propaganda coup. Upshot is that he won victories in England and in August he was back in France, and the French king sued for peace. Henry II granted his three rebellious sons lands and castles as sources of income, but no political power.
- Eleanor was placed under courteous “castle arrest” in Chinon Castle, France and then soon to Salisbury Castle, England. Henry II never forgave her of her incitement of her sons, so she was never released from castle arrest while he was alive, though towards the end she did attend some court celebrations like Christmas or great occasions.
- Her two youngest children Joanne and John, her daughter-in-law Margaret (wife of Young Henry), and likely Alix of France (daughter of Louis VII, intended from Richard) and Constance of Brittany (intended for Geoffrey).
- It should be pointed out the Alix used to be under Henry II’s care, and he seduced her. There’s no way Richard would now marry her, especially since he believed she had a child by his father. Great scandal!
- Henry sought an annulment because the papal legate showed up in 1175; he wanted to marry Rosamnd Clifford, but she died in late 1176 or in 1177. He probably wouldn’t have gotten the dissolution anyway, since the murder of Thomas Becket.
- Younger Henry died from dysentery in June 1183. Henry wanted a death-bed reconciliation, but Henry II feared a trap, so he sent a ring instead. It was not a trap. This indicates how strife-filled these two Plantagenet generations were.
- Eleanor had a dream that young Henry appeared to her wearing two crowns, the lower duller (earthly power) and the upper one brighter (his salvation).
- Maybe young Henry’s death relaxed Henry II’s grip on his wife, so she visited her dower lands in 1183.
- But not for long. She was moved from Salisbury Castle to Windsor Castle, and payments for her upkeep increased.
- Her daughter Matilda arrived in England in 1184, with her husband, Henry, duke of Saxony, her eldest son (also Henry), a second son, Otto (a palindrome), daughter Richenza, and a large company of knights and other attendants.
- Eleanor was much pleased to see her grown daughter and grandchildren.
- Henry II wanted to give Richard’s land to Henry’s now favorite son John, so Richard rebelled.
- Eleanor lived in Normandy (northern France) for nearly a year, then she spent time at the royal palace at Winchester, in 1186.
- Geoffrey, their son, died supposedly form a horse trampling him in a tournament (knights held violent tournaments) while living with King Philip II (Louis VII’s son).
- Maybe John would be the successor, after all, and not Richard, the elder brother. The outrage!
- Richard rebelled, but Henry was growing weaker from too many conflicts and suppressions of revolts. He may have finally succumbed when he heard John, his beloved son, went over to King Philip II’s side. Henry died soon after, on July 6, 1189, Thursday.
- Eleanor was free. She would get involved in the Plantagenet succession through her second son Richard and take over her scattered domains.
- She was now queen-mother.
- In summary, she protected the realm from threats from her son John (count of Mortain) and from the Capetian king Philip II. She enforced royal directives, prohibited a papal legate from entering the kingdom, attested royal charters and attended gatherings of the king’s great council.
- When her son Richard went on a crusade, she tried to protect the realm, while Philip II (king of France) and John threatened it.
- She arranged form Richard’s marriage to Berengaria of Navarre (Pyrenees) and led her down to Cyprus, where Richard married her on May 12, 1191.
- Her daughter Joanne’s marriage to King William of Sicily was childless. When William died, a bastard tried to take over Sicily, but Richard and Eleanor rode to the rescue.
- During Richard’s return from the Holy Land, he was captured. Eleanor wrote three letters to the pope and others, and these letters survive (though some skeptics say their fictions). They reveal her anger and concerns to get her son released.
- On her return to England, she may have traveled through Champagne, France, and met her daughter Marie, by her first husband Louis VII.
- Richard and Berengaria were childless. Supposedly he was a homosexual, but also they were apart for extended lengths of time.
- Richard died on April 6, 1199.
- She didn’t favor her dead son Geoffrey’s son Arthur of Brittany, because the Bretons despised the Plantagenets. She moved to secure John’s succession.
- She bought the support of numerous towns in her territories by acknowledging their communes and associations.
- During this time her daughter Joanne, now wife of Raymond VI, count of Toulouse, joined her mother up in France. She begged to receive the veil because she sensed she would die in giving birth. She had to use caesarian birth, and she did die in September 1199, her son living long enough to receive baptism. He too died.
- Now only her son John and daughter Eleanor were left.
- Eleanor returned to Fontevraud to retire with other noble ladies, but soon events compelled her to help her son.
- She went down to Spain to escort the daughter of her daughter Eleanor (known in Spain as Leanor), a long journey for a woman in her late seventies. Maybe she went down there to see her daughter one last time, whom she hadn’t seen for thirty years.
- John dropped his betrothed Isabelle of Gloucester and took another bride Isabelle of Angouleme. This offended powerful lords down in France, and this sudden provided Philip II (king of France) and Arthur of Brittany with a reason to revolt.
- They besieged Eleanor in a castle, but John rescued her in a sneak attack when his enemies were eating breakfast. He captured several of his enemies, including Arthur of Brittany.
- John murdered him in a drunken rage (or had him murdered).
- John was now cursed throughout Christendom. He lost lots of territories in France and went back to England.
- Eleanor retired to Fontevraud. She oversaw the construction of tomb-sculptures or a Plantagenet mausoleum for her son Richard and husband Henry II.
- She died on April 1, 1204, eighty years old.
- For centuries afterwards, she was a victim of legends and lies about her: she was an adulteress, a murderess (supposedly Rosamund Clifford), and a descendant of Melusine, a fairy-mistress whom later legend turned into a demon-like figure.
Here is a better summary of her life from a modern French biographer:
It is the constant political activity and her role at court … that makes Eleanor an exceptional woman to the point of astonishing the historians of our time and of shocking the misogynistic chroniclers of her own (qtd. in Turner 129).
William Clopton and Our Royal Heritage (royal gateway ancestor)
Ian Crofton, The Kings and Queens of England (New York: Metro Books, 2006).
Dan Jones, The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England (New York: 2014).
Charles Philips, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Royal Britain (New York: Metro Books, 2009).
Ralph V. Turner, Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen of France, Queen of England (New Haven: Yale U P, 2009)
W. L. Warren, King John, New Edition, (New Haven: Yale U P 1997 [1961, 1978]).
—, Henry II (Berkeley: University of California P, 1973).